Monday, December 22, 2008

The Wrestler

Saw "The Wrestler" this weekend with my dad. Terrific movie, the kind that sits in the pit of your stomach once it end and keeps you thinking about it. Plus I've listened to that Bruce Springsteen song about 150,000 times the past two days (Bruce wrote the title track specifically for the film, and if he loses the "Best Original Song" Oscar to Randy Newman or something silly I might set fire to the Academy). Anyway, a few thoughts:


--Just a wonderful, sad, lived-in performance by Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the kind of performance that's so convincing it doesn't feel like he's acting. And as a washed up 80's has-been trying to make a comeback playing a washed-up 80's has been trying to make a comeback, maybe he isn't. After The Ram's speech before the final match, about his missed opportunities and wasted life, my dad said, "That speech sounded like it could have been about Mickey Rourke." 

--The performances other than Rourke--Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood--feel authentic because there's no extraneous dialogue, no needless exposition. These characters have lived their lives and don't need to explain anything. Even though Evan Rachel Wood (as Rourke's alienated daughter) spends relatively little time with him, the anguish in her eyes, even more wrenching in their final scene together lets you know just what a kind of father Rourke's Randy was. And Tomei's Cassidey--like Rourke's Robinson--does what she does simply because she doesn't know anything else. 

--As someone who became a bit of a wrestling fan late in life (I was a pretty ardent follower from about 2001 until the awful Chris Benoit double murder/suicide last year), I was impressed with how authentic the wrestling scenes were. From the crowd chants to the moves to the weapons, this was an authentic a "sport" movie as I've ever seen. Nice to know Darren Aronofsky went the extra mile to get the details right.

--Definitely a tough movie to watch at times, both physically and emotionally. The violence in some of the matches is hard to bear, even more so knowing that these guys put their bodies through this in real life. Wrestlers do cut their foreheads with razor blades to draw blood. They do end some matches with dozens of thumbtacks sticking out of their bodies. They are mangled by barbed wire and they do fall off of ladders through tables. As hard as those scenes are to watch, the emotional ones are just as difficult. Deep down we seem to know that Randy "The Ram" will never redeem himself, so in some way we feel like his daughter when he comes to her in the middle of the night. We're sad, we might shed tears for him, but we've also moved on. This is the man he is, and thinking he could be anything different would be lying to him and to ourselves.

--The ending is staged beautifully, and as it sinks in as to what Randy is planning to do we watch not in horror, but with some sense of relief, because it feels like things are going to end the way they should.

I could write endlessly about wrestling and how authentically this movie deals with the sad reality of broken down wrestlers who end up penniless, incapacitated and alienated from society, but instead I'll direct you to this terrific piece by ESPN's Bill Simmons. Chris Benoit was legitimately my favorite wrestler while I followed the 'sport', and it hit me pretty hard when news broke of his death. Since then I have not been able to look at wrestling the same way, and though the WWE (basically the only mainstream wrestling organization) has instituted more stringent drug testing, the list of wrestlers who die before their time grows every year. 

While "The Wrestler" is a harrowing portrait of what happens when the only thing you're good at in your life is taken away from you, it is also a frighteningly realistic portrait of what the cameras don't show. These men, once blessed with seven figure incomes, bodies like Greek Gods and hordes of admiring (and often lustful) fans, are often reduced to taking Polaroids for $8 a pop, scars covering their bodies that have been ravaged from far too many painkillers, enhancers, and injuries that the adrenaline masks until it's too late. This movie shows what happens once the fireworks die down, what happens once the curtains close behind you for the final time. For many of these men (and some women), once the applause dies down, silence is the only crowd that waits.

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